The Illinois Department of Corrections has responded to news media requests for prison visits by denying individual journalists access to prison facilities and instead offering guided group tours.
The Chicago Headline Club, the single largest voice for journalists in Illinois, is deeply concerned by this decision and urges Illinois officials to halt such tours.
We believe that reporters should be allowed to visit prisons under supervision, but not as a group and not accompanied by an entourage of prison officials leading the way in a tour that has been planned in advance.
On behalf of Illinois’ journalists and the public, we urge the state to avoid the image of hiding behind bureaucratic procedures and to uphold basic notions of openness and transparency.
We are distressed by the use of group tours because it hampers our essential responsibility to fully and completely gather news important to the public.
It is our responsibility to make sure that the public is aware of conditions in public places, where vulnerable individuals cannot voice their complaints. More than ever the public wants to know how the state of Illinois spends more than $1.2 billion annually on its prison system.
In many places in the world today unacceptable conditions persist because uncaring public officials have kept out the news media. We hold our state to a higher standard than those places.
Why do we believe so firmly in our rights to responsible access to Illinois prisons?
Because this is an essential aspect of carrying out our First Amendment rights and responsibilities.
And because, as the US Supreme Court has ruled, the public have should access to prison facilities to witness the operations of the facilities. In this matter, the rights of the news media are no greater than the public’s.
We recognize the state’s concerns about protecting inmate privacy, safety and security and, as state officials have also pointed out, the manpower burdens involved in journalists visits.
But we find it hard to believe that such issues cannot be dealt with to satisfy prison officials and journalists.
The Chicago Headline Club